Ramp Reveals Secrets

I am, at present, reading a book called Slow Train to Switzerland, in which a certain Dicon Bewes traces the route taken by the very first Cook's Tour of Switzerland, as recorded in the recently rediscovered journal of Jemima Anne Morrell from Yorkshire. He and I are both agreed that they don't make tourists like that any more! However it was a paragraph on p. 180 which caught my attention.

"Before we can enter the 'narrow and savage gorge of the torrent Lutschine', we pass the oddest collection of buildings ever erected in Switzerland: a pyramid, a ziggurat, a golden dome and what appears to be a giant Chupa Chups lolly. That's the Jungfrau Park, Interlaken's answer to the rainy day problem. It started life as the Mystery Park, although the only mystery is why it ever opened. For a brief moment it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Switzerland, and then people realised it was actually nothing more than a monument to one man's ego and weird theories. The man in question was Erich von Daniken, a Swiss author famous for his first book, 'Chariots of the Gods'. Each pavilion in the park covered a different human mystery, such as the Nazca Lines or Stonehenge and showed a film about it. The answer every time was 'Aliens did it!', which is pretty much what von Daniken says in his books. It was a theme park that was all theme and no park. By 2006 it was bankrupt, as dead as the ancient Egyptians. Now it's been reincarnated (presumably withot help from ET) as the Jungfrau Park, with daytime fun for kids alongside the Aliens-Did-It pavilions."

I was just a student when 'Chariots of the Gods' hit the headlines and as I had travelled a fair bit in the Middle East, numerous people asked my opinion. I felt obliged to read the book in order to answer them and I must admit that the first couple of mysteries did raise unanswered questions in my mind. How were the Nazca Lines constructed without the ability to look down on them from the air?

Alas for von Daniken's theories, I then came to his chapter on the Great Pyramid in which he poured scorn on archaeologists and their theories about how the pyramids were built. "Where are the huts for all these thousands of workers?" he demanded. "Where are the ropes used to haul the millions of stones?"

His answer was that the huts, ropes and other tools were not to be found and therefore it was another case of "the aliens did it". I, however, was fresh from wandering around the Cairo Museum and Giza Plateau, where I had seen pieces of rope and the ruins of the huts. At that point I shut the book and don't think I ever finished reading it.

Von Daniken might have posed a more unanswerable question if he had concentrated on how the Great Pyramid was built instead of on the ropes and ruins, for the problem of how the ancient Egyptians hoisted all those stones 480' in the air has exercised many minds for a considerable time.

The usual answer is that the Egyptians constructed earth ramps up which they dragged the stones and you will sometimes see artists' impressions of the pyramid with this huge earth ramp stretching off to one side. Unfortunately, someone with a bit of engineering know-how calculated it all out and reckoned that you would need something like 2.5 times the pyramid's volume of earth and sand to construct such a ramp and the work of clearing it away afterwards would have taken nearly as long as building the pyramid - to say nothing of leaving traces that the archaeologists could not help but find.

That led to ever more ingenious ramps being devised. One popular one was a ramp that circled round the pyramid, resting on the steps formed by each course of stones. Engineers questioned the stability of such a ramp, particularly at the corners, as each of the blocks of stone and its rollers were manoeuvred through 90 degrees. By the time you reached the top, the ramp would be too steep as it had to rise the same height in a much shorter distance.

Then came the internal ramp theory, in which the ramp was built right up the middle of the pyramid, which was constructed on each side of the ramp. Go to Bing Images and enter "Great Pyramid ramp" as the search term and see some of the weird and wonderful ideas that have been proposed. You could also visit Top Secret Forum for illustrations and discussion of all these ideas.

An insight into what the ancient Egyptians actually did - as opposed to what theorists say they should have done - is given by the recent discovery at the ancient quarry site of Hatnub. This quarry is in the Eastern Desert about 40 miles south-east of el-Minya, so no-where near the Great Pyramid or any of the pyramids and in any case the stone found there is alabaster, not limestone. However the workers at the quarry were faced with the problem of getting their blocks of alabaster out of the quarry and up onto the desert floor where they could be manhandled towards their final destination.

The ramp at Hatnub quarry
The recently discovered ramp at the alabaster quarries at Hatnub.

Archaeologists from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo and the University of Liverpool in England have just announced the discovery of a ramp for doing this. It consists of a smooth slope flanked on both sides by stone-cut stairs and a succession of holes. It seems likely that these holes contained vertical posts and that blocks of stone on wooden sledges - with or without rollers - were hauled up the ramp by ropes that ran around the posts.

So far as we know, the Egyptians did not invent the pulley wheel and a direct pull on a rope that ran round the posts would have involved impossible amounts of friction. We are not told the diameter of these post holes but it would have had to be substantial if the posts were not to snap off under the strain of ropes drawing 2.5 tons of stone - the average weight of a Great Pyramid stone.

However if there were men at the back of the sledge with levers as well as the two teams of men with ropes attached to the front of the sledge, the whole thing becomes much more feasible. The men at the back lever the stone forward an inch or two, the men on the ropes take up the slack and hold the stone still while the levers are repositioned, and up the stone goes. Easy peasy.

There is one problem with this scenario, however. Whether the posts and ropes were used as I have suggested or as the archaeologists imply, there did not need to be so many of them! A single pair of posts at the top of the ramp would have been sufficient - you'd just need a long rope. Did the post holes serve some other purpose?

In the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid there is a ramp on which, it is believed, the blocking stones rested before being released to slide down and block the Ascending Passage. Cut into either side of this ramp are a succession of rectangular holes about three feet apart. It has been suggested that the blocking stones were held in position by bars of wood that passed across the width of the Gallery and rested on posts stuck into the holes.

When it was time to release the blocking stones, they did not simply knock out the bars and let the stones slide - the chances that they would go crooked and get irretrievably stuck in the entrance to the Ascending Passage were just too great. Instead posts were set in the next set of holes and a bar put in position, then the first bar was removed and the stone was slowly lowered - ropes and levers were almost certainly involved - to the second bar. The process was repeated all the way down until the stone was perfectly positioned just in front of the Ascending Passage and then the final bar was removed and the blocking stone slid down the passage to crash into position.

I suggest that the Hatnub postholes served a similar purpose but in reverse. The stone was dragged up a certain distance by teams of workmen on the steps, straining on ropes attached to the block. When they reached a certain distance a bar was set across the next set of posts and the sweating team could relax and catch their breaths and tell each other what fine fellows they were before everyone bent to the ropes again and the stone was moved up another post hole.

Curiously, the Egyptians do not seem to have thought of using animals for this heavy dragging. You would have thought that a team of oxen would be more efficient than several hundred men hauling on ropes, but possibly the cattle of those days were not large and strong enough for the job or, more likely, the Egyptians did not consider them reliable enough to start and stop simultaneously on command.

Egyptian fresco of a statue being moved
A gigantic seated statue being dragged by lines of men with ropes.

When people talk about the Egyptians moving things they commonly refer to the ancient picture showing an impressively large statue being dragged by long lines of men. The statue is mounted on a sledge and on the front of this seldge is a man tipping water onto the ground. This is usually referred to as the normal Egyptian way of moving things.

It isn't.

In the first place, the newly discovered ramp has no drag marks, no deep grooves caused by the runners of a sledge. As you wouldn't drag a block of stone over the rough stone of the ramp - you'd damage the block of stone! - this can only mean that the block was supported by rollers, with or without a sledge. (And this is also the reason why the post holes were required. It would require a much steeper slope than this to cause a block of stone or even a stone on a sledge, to slide backwards down the ramp unless it was also mounted on rollers.)

Secondly, pouring water in advance of the sledge runners would lubricate the path of the sledge over earth - mud is slippery. I am not aware of any studies on the subject, but personal experience walking on our local beach gives me the impression that wet sand is slightly less slippery than dry sand. I believe I am correct in saying that most of the journey from quarry to building site - whichever quarry was involved - was over sand rather than over fertile fields and standing crops.

The most impressive thing about this new discovery, however, is the angle of the ramp - 20°! For those not used to the Continental method of specifying steepness, that is 1:5. Here in Britain the authorities put up warning signs when the slope of a road is a mere 1:10. 1:5 counts as steep enough to have truck drivers engaging low gear and caravan towers flipping down the little gizmo that stops the caravan's brakes coming on.

The ramps depicted on the internet are nowhere near 20° because that was thought to be far too steep for practical haulage. I'm no mathematician, but if anyone cares to do the sums, I suspect you will find that a single ramp of 20° would use considerably less material than has previously been calculated - just over half the amount if my school-boy maths isn't too grievously mistaken.

So eat your heart out, von Daniken. The "aliens-did-it" theory has just taken another blow. Instead of little green men building the pyramids, it was little brown men, dusty, sweaty, but on the whole rather proud of the way they could haul stones up a 20° ramp!

© Kendall K. Down 2018